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Cartoonist follows his dreams, creates Baldo

By Gheni_Platenburg
Oct. 2, 2010 at 5:02 a.m.

Hector Cantu, who along with Carlos Castellanos, created Baldo, a daily comic strip featuring a Latino-American family. Cantu will speak at the Victoria College Lyceum Lecture Series on Thursday.

If You go:

WHAT: Victoria College Lyceum Lecture Series.

WHO: Hector Cantu, the co-creator of the comic strip Baldo,

WHEN: Noon Thursday

WHERE: Victoria College

ADMISSION: Free

Baldo History1998 - The Baldo comic strip was created. It follows the lives of a 15-year-old Latino-American teenager, Baldomero Bermudez, aka "Baldo", who lives with his 8-year-old sister Gracie; their father, Sergio, and their aunt, Tia Carmen.

April 2000 - Universal Press Syndicate, now known as Universal Uclick, contracted for the strip, and launched it in newspaper.

As of this year, Baldo is published in about 225 daily and Sunday newspapers nationwide.

Cartoonist Hector Cantu was just 12 years old when he received his first rejection letter for a comic strip.

As a kid who loved to write and draw comics, Cantu was excited about the possibility of his very first comic strip submission getting accepted by Mad Magazine.

Copying the style of Mad Magazine artist Sergio Aragonés, Cantu created a gag that showed Hansel and Gretel eating the witch's entire house before walking away.

Cantu's dreams of hitting the big time at age 12 were cut short, however, once the rejection letter arrived in the mail.

"It had a watermark of Alfred E. Neuman's face. The editor said something like 'Sorry, but maybe some day you'll join the usual gang of idiots here at Mad'," Cantu recalled about the handwritten letter. "I remember crumpling up the letter and throwing it away."

Despite receiving bad news, Cantu was not deterred from following his dreams.

Cantu, now 49, never did join the gang at Mad, but he did rise to national fame as a cartoonist with Baldo, the first nationally syndicated comic strip featuring a Latino-American family.

The comic strip is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

"We've just been trying to put out the best comic possible," said Cantu, who provides the words for Baldo, while his friend Carlos Castellanos, a famed comic artist, does the illustrations. "That's been our job since the beginning."

Cantu explained his motivation behind creating the comic strip.

"It was something I always had in my mind. A hidden dream," he said. "I really didn't see any comics that included people or characters that were representative of the way I grew up. There were no Latinos."

Knowing the difficulties that come with trying to get a comic strip picked up by a syndicate, Cantu is still in awe over Baldo's success.

"Your strip has to be good enough to catch the interest of a syndicate," said Cantu. "They get hundreds of thousands of submissions every year and only pick three or four."

Being funny and consistently good are two of the reasons behind Baldo's success, said Cantu.

The fact that Baldo features a cast of Hispanic characters is also a huge feat in Cantu's eyes.

"The biggest obstacle of any strip featuring minority characters, whether African-American or Hispanics, is being in most newspapers in America," said Cantu. "Surprisingly, we have not encountered much negativity with newspapers."

Avoiding stereotypes

Although Baldo is rich with Hispanic traditions and heritage, Cantu said he avoids including many "classic" Hispanic pop culture stereotypes such as sombreros and Hispanics as yard workers.

"We try to stay away from negative stereotypes, but we do try to do positive stereotypes," said Cantu. "If we're going to be the only Latino comic strip out there, we're not going to go crazy with Latino stereotypes."

The characters are composites of people that he and Castellanos know, he said.

Making a concerted effort to avoid stereotypes, while some other comic strips have embraced the idea, can prove difficult at times, Cantu said.

"We're working with a different set of tools, which makes things harder, but we accept that challenge," said Cantu.

"I hope that Baldo sends the message that there's a wide market for comics and for cartoonists. This is a comic strip that brings a Latino family's life into the homes of readers of all backgrounds," said Shena Wolf, an editor with Universal Uclick. "There are elements of Baldo that are universal, and there are elements that are very specific to the culture, and these combine to make a comic that, I believe, is important for readers across the board to see in a nationally syndicated comic strip."

'I try to write 25 words'

Cantu, a married father of three who also works full time as an editor at Heritage Auctions magazine, revealed his secret to the continued creation of successful Baldo storylines consists of a comfy chair, a grande coffee with extra cream and a laptop computer complete with news headlines all at a Dallas-area Starbucks.

"I just read these stories and try to get inspired by stories that would pertain to the Bermudez family," said Cantu. "I try to write 25 words that will be entertaining in a daily comic strip."

Baldo is a dream fulfilled for Cantu, who spent his younger days engrossed in the happenings of Spider-man, X-men and Hagar the Horrible among other newspaper and magazine comics.

After the Mad magazine disappointment, the Weslaco native went on to have his comic published in a small-town paper owned by his brother and continued on with his writing.

He graduated from the University of Texas-Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1984 and went on to work as a reporter at various publications for the next 25 years.

Those publications included the San Antonio Light, the Dallas Times Herald and Hispanic Business Magazine in Santa Barbara, Calif., which is where he worked when he started Baldo.

Wolf speaks highly of Cantu's skills as a writer.

"Hector Cantu writes stories that resonate with families, and he can go from heartwarming to hilarious in a single line of dialogue," said Wolf. "He's got a great sense of what he wants, and how these characters work and his timing is impeccable."

Start with an online comic strip

Getting into the National Basketball Association might be easier than becoming a successful, syndicated columnist, Canto said. Still, he continues to encourage future cartoonists to follow their dream.

He advised people interested in becoming a cartoonist to do an online comic strip in order to develop their fan base and hopefully, catch the attention of syndicates.

In the future, Cantu hopes to turn Baldo into a television program, but for now, he is happy just enjoying living out his childhood dream.

"We plan on just doing what we like to do, which is trying to entertain people," said Cantu.

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